On Friday night, I battled the inevitable end-of-week desire to do absolutely nothing, and instead dragged myself through the gauntlet of Grand Central Station with a colleague so that we could board the 5:30 p.m. commuter train to Beacon. In the city, the sky was ominous, toggling between storm clouds and sun, but by the time we emerged from Grand Central’s cell-phone-deadening matrix of tunnels into the calm of Upper Manhattan, the sun was out and our expedition seemed blessed by the weather gods. We were headed upstate to get on a boat that would take us out onto the Hudson so that we could view artist Melissa McGill’s new light installation, Constellation, located on the tiny outcropping of Pollepel Island in the middle of the river.
If you’ve ever joined the hordes of athleisure-clad weekend warriors who stream up to Cold Spring in warm weather for a pre-brunch scramble up Breakneck Ridge, or if you’ve ever just taken the Metro-North up the Hudson, you’ve probably noticed Pollepel Island—though there’s a decent chance you wouldn’t know to call it that. The island sits about 1,000 feet off the shores of Beacon, across the river from Storm King Mountain. Perched on top of it are the ruins of a mysterious castle. As of this past weekend, it also holds seventeen flag poles topped with blue tinted LED bulbs (better for birds), which, every night for the next two years, will flicker on in an animated, organically inspired sequence. As the sun goes down, the poles recede into darkness, and for two hours the lights glow like a low-hanging cluster of stars, dipping in and around the ragged stone walls of the ruined fortress.
It was speculation about the castle that first kindled McGill’s interest in the site. She’s lived and worked in Beacon for eight years, but a decade ago she was a Greenpoint-based artist who, like the rest of us, occasionally found herself on the Metro-North fantasizing about the wilds of upstate. During those rides, and later, once she moved and regularly rode back into the city, she’d eavesdrop on the conversations around her about the strange castle out the window. “I heard someone say, That’s from the seventeenth century. That it was built by a king. Someone said it was a theater set,” McGill told Vogue.com over the phone. “There’s all sorts of mythology.” When she moved, she asked around the community, and received more unlikely answers. “Most people who live in this area have never been there,” she said. “I’d hear ‘Oh, it’s filled with snakes,’ ‘There’s bats,’ ‘It’s covered in poison ivy.’ All these very dramatic, mysterious stories. And so I thought you couldn’t go there.”
In fact, you can go there, as she eventually discovered. The castle was built at the turn of the 20th century by an army-navy surplus dealer named Francis Bannerman, who purchased the island after concerns about his large stockpiles of explosives forced him to move his operation from Manhattan. On his new land, he built a summer home for his family and a series of turreted arsenals that would serve both as storage and as an ornate advertisement for the used military goods he bought and sold. Bannerman died in 1918, and by 1920 his fantasyland had begun to crumble: first when a gunpowder explosion damaged the arsenals, then when a fire further destroyed the complex in 1969. By then, the Bannerman family had sold the land to New York State, which incorporated it into the Hudson Highlands State Park. Over the years, the parks department has partnered with the Bannerman Castle Trust to clean up leftover explosives, stabilize the structures, restore the gardens originally planted by Bannerman’s wife (not-so-fun fact: Angelika Graswald, the woman who has been charged with killing her fiancé while kayaking on the river this spring, was one of the volunteers who gardens every Wednesday), and, since 2004, lead public historical tours.
For McGill, the island became an impossible-to-ignore art prompt so potent that she’s dedicated the past three years of her life, and independently raised more than half a million dollars, to bring Constellation to fruition. It’s a process that’s involved help from a “galaxy” of people—more than a hundred, she says—including art-world mentors like outgoing Creative Time president (and incoming director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art) Anne Pasternak, Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry, and Polich Tallix owner Dick Polich, whose fine art foundry engineered the highly complex installation. (“On a bedrock island in the Hudson River, with this difficult topography, with a fragile ruin on it that’s a historical landmark,” McGill reminded me.)
It’s been not only a passion project for the artist; it’s been a way of negotiating a still relatively new life upstate. Before her twins, now ten, were born, McGill had five solo shows—in London; Memphis, Tennessee; Columbus, Ohio; Bologna, Italy; and New York City—within the space of a couple years. But then motherhood, as well as the disorientation of moving, sent her into an incubation period. “It took me a little while to get reconnected with my work,” she said. “It wasn’t easy in the beginning.” During that period of relative dormancy, McGill was influenced heavily by two experiences: watching Robert Irwin speak at Parsons, and seeing Tino Sehgal’s 2010 piece, This Progress, at the Guggenheim Museum, in which visitors to the museum were led up the central ramp by guides of ascending ages, while engaging in conversations about the meaning of progress. “I was ripe for some kind of transition and I was really taken by the idea of the experience of the work, perception, the way that a viewer could interact or be part of the work,” said McGill.
In the empty space of the ruined castle, and in the questions that arose surrounding those ruins, McGill found a powerful symbol of absence and presence, a theme that has always fascinated her. The installation’s seventeen points of light hover atop poles of different heights, which reference the original heights of Bannerman’s structure, mapping out the now mostly missing buildings. But they also reference a more profound absence: that of the Lenape tribe of Native Americans who inhabited the area long before Dutch settlers named the island Pollepel. When McGill showed Hadrien Coumans of the Lenape Center her initial renderings, he connected it with his tribe’s legend of Opi Tamakan, a path of stars that links this world to the spirit world. It was perfect kismet. “That was part of my idea already,” explained McGill. “This path of stars that marks a path between past and present, light and darkness, and heaven and earth.”
When we met during Friday’s boat ride, McGill, dressed in black capris, fuchsia Vans, and a boxy white sleeveless shirt, was ebullient, as bubbly as the Prosecco we were served on the short trip out to the island. She has a tendency to grab your shoulder as she talks to you, and it’s clear that her personal warmth must have been instrumental in wrangling the massive amounts of help and support needed to make her complicated public art vision a reality.
Later McGill would try to explain her work to me in terms of the language of finches—the spaces between chirps communicate as much as the chirps themselves, she says—but on the boat, cerebral frameworks paled in comparison to the elemental, almost magical experience of Constellation. As we puttered toward the island, birds dive-bombed through the vacant windows of Bannerman’s façade. The rosy stone of the castle walls glowed against an eclectic green mountain backdrop. The sun lowered in the sky and a Creamsicle sunset formed on the horizon. We weren’t alone: A speedboat parked off the rocky shore of the island, and a group of kayakers (Storm King Adventure Tours leads trips to see the lights) gathered nearby. Even on our boat, populated by a boisterous crowd of journalists just beginning to get tipsy, the anticipation felt palpable.
“How do you feel?” I asked McGill when she wandered by as we circumnavigated the island, waiting for nightfall. “I feel like I can’t believe this happened!” she said, a huge smile on her face. Later on the phone, I posed the question again. “There’s this ancient Arab proverb I’ve been thinking about for a very long time,” she told me. “ ‘Throw your heart out in front of you and run ahead to catch it.’ That’s been the experience. You believe in something, you have an idea. You take the right steps. You talk to all the right people. You do all these tests. But then to see it actually up is . . . thrilling.”
Thrilling, indeed. Down river, the yellow lights of West Point gleamed against the dusk, and up river, the lights of Newburgh did the same. But when the first bulb of Constellation, attached to the tallest of the poles, turned on, its light appeared genuinely celestial. The LEDs McGill opted for are directional, so they tend to twinkle, getting brighter when you’re directly in front of them, and flickering lower when you’re not. One by one, the rest of the bulbs ignited, until they were all dancing in concert, like a perfect microcosm of the cosmos.
Practically on cue, a couple of actual stars appeared higher in the mostly cloudy sky, mirroring the woman-made version below, the last in a series of friendly helpers who have blessed McGill’s project. They seemed to be there just to say: See, she kind of got it right.
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